The more things change, the more they stay the same!: Getting ready for the new year

Today there is no denying that it’s ‘back to school Sunday’. There are queues into the car parks of supermarkets full of parents asking their children what they’d like in their packed lunches and the sun has come back out!

I’ve tried to ignore the back to school tips on Twitter week with lots of helpful advice for those starting out as trainees and NQTs this September – by ignoring them I could remain in denial about the end of the holidays for a little bit longer! Now this isn’t to say I’m dreading going back to work tomorrow. It’s just it’s been the holidays and I’ve been enjoying the break.

But this afternoon, as I bake chocolate cupcakes to be my reward to myself when I get in from school this week, my mind has turned to thinking about what I’m going to say to our trainees, NQTs and their mentors tomorrow as I begin my 14th year as a teacher and 7th as a Senior Leader. And the more I think about it, the more changes we seem to have each year, yet the more things stay the same! So here’s what I’ll be saying tomorrow…and I’ve been saying for as long as can remember…

1. When planning, teaching and giving feedback , the Geography (or your subject) comes first. Every word you say, every resource you use, every question you ask and every piece of writing you set students should be about Geography first and last.

2. The world is a fascinating place and you don’t need to jazz things up or make them relevant to students with gimmicks. Photographs, artefacts and real life facts engage students far more than anything else I’ve ever tried to make it seem interesting.

3. Spend the most time when planning on what you will say for instructions and direct teaching rather than fancy resources. I realised a long time ago than there are hundreds of versions of ‘how is a waterfall formed’ videos on YouTube I could use but using a board pen and drawing the diagrams with annotations as I explained it to the students was a far more effective way of teaching it. In the same way, give thought to when you are going to say they need to work independently (in which case it should be silence), in pairs or in groups and make sure you are clear about it at the beginning of the task. You also need to remember the power of using the words finish and stop. They don’t mean the same things yet can be easily said while meaning the other one – do you want them to ‘finish their sentence’ or ‘stop writing’? The clarity of your language can make a huge difference to your lesson and students’ learning.

4. When thinking about setting targets also consider what is coming next rather than just what the previous lesson/work has shown is an area for development. Whether its students or teachers you are working with, there is no point in giving someone a target at a point in time when its not relevant. For example, giving a student a target to improve their explanation of geomorphic processes when you’re moving onto look at urban regeneration or giving a trainee teacher a target to embed their use of behaviour management strategies when they are changing placements. In the first instance, for the student make a note to give them that target when doing revision or moving onto a related topic while for the trainee teacher you could set a target about learning and utilising the new placement’s BfL strategies to expand their practice in this area to make a positive start to the next placement.

5. Unless it’s completely non-negotiable in your school, do not ask students to copy down or choose their own learning objective. The first is a waste of 5 minutes learning time and the second often reduces the level of challenge as it caps the students’ and your perceptions of what they can achieve. In 14 years (and 4 schools) I have never asked a student to write down or choose their own learning objective (and I’ve worked in schools where this was the usual practice) but instead have always had open ended questions as my lesson/topic titles and the objective has always been to answer it! This isn’t to say that I’ve not had specific and increasingly challenging objectives in my head as I’ve planned but I’ve never constrained an individual students’ learning by getting them to state what they will be aiming to achieve.*

6. Always share the positives and gift your mistakes with others. In other words, talk through what has worked and what hasn’t worked in your classroom with colleagues so everyone can learn from each other. This is a really important part of working collaboratively to reduce workload and be more efficient – if something works then other people will want to try it too and if something didn’t work then you can all avoid doing something unproductive in the future.

7. Do start following people on Twitter and some of the prominent bloggers and have a look at some of the ideas they are using in their classrooms. Just remember that not everything works everywhere so take the ideas, adopt them for your teaching and your students and don’t be afraid to decide a strategy isn’t right for you – just also remember to say thank you to the poster for sharing if you use one of their ideas.

8. Don’t get caught up in the trad v prog debate on social media. Go back to point 1 and start from there. For me that means directly teaching content first then getting students to use this knowledge to apply to new situations. I call this enquiry learning as they are answering an enquiry question about a new context but I’d never just set them off to do the enquiry on their own without teaching the knowledge first. Margaret Roberts has written books about ‘enquiry’ geography and not once does she say anything about students just going off to discover things for themselves with no input or guidance first.

*on a related note I will be telling our trainees and NQTs at some point over the next few weeks about a French teacher I once worked with. She was one of the most inspiring teachers I have ever had the pleasure to see teach and retired shortly after this…One day, when being given feedback following a lesson observation, she was asked by the observer where the evidence of differentiated objectives in her lesson were (the observer was an interview candidate for the role of Principal). I’ll never forget how she sat back in her chair, looked him straight in the eye and said ‘I don’t differentiate my students young man. I set the expectation everyone will get everything 100% correct and scaffold so they do.’

To everyone going back to school tomorrow, I hope you and your students have a happy and successful year. For me, I think it’s time to ice my cupcakes and enjoy eating one (or three!) while I switch back off from work for the rest of the day!

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